How post-ISIS scramble for advantage in Syria raises risk of wider war

While outside powers that played large roles in the Syrian war show little desire for an enlarged conflict, their fierce rivalry in the war's 'most dangerous phase' poses an escalation threat, as recent violence demonstrated.

Syrian Central Military Media/AP
Senior officers from the Iranian military visited a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, last October.

On three different Syrian front lines, the violent events of recent days signal that the long-running conflict has reached a critical moment of evolution, as key players jockey to establish new red lines and maximize gains after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.

First to grab headlines was the launching last weekend of an Iranian drone from western Syria into Israel for the first time. Israel shot it down, then lost one of its own F-16 jet fighters – the first such loss in decades – to a Syrian anti-aircraft missile after striking the drone’s home base.

The Israeli Air Force retaliated for the downed jet, targeting eight Syrian and four Iranian positions inside Syria, and claiming to destroy half of Syria’s air-defense capacity.

Second to grab headlines were reports that emerged this week about the death of scores of Russian “mercenaries” that had attacked a position of US advisers and their militia allies in the oil-rich eastern Syrian region of Deir Ezzor on Feb. 7 and 8. They were met by a three-hour US military barrage, in the most lethal US-Russia incident since the cold war.

The third event, with fewer fireworks, saw the Turkish military advance up to positions in northern Syria, eyeball to eyeball with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, which have themselves been shelling anti-regime rebels in the northern Idlib enclave.

As the danger of ISIS fades from Syria, the array of players that have helped destroy the country during seven years of war are probing each other to establish new rules of the game, analysts say, in high-stakes efforts that risk sparking an even wider war.

“This is the most dangerous phase of the Syrian conflict, because now geo-strategic regional and global powers are positioning themselves for the post-ISIS phase,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast scholar at the London School of Economics.

“There is a fierce rivalry, everyone is willing to push the envelope, to escalate, and this is why the fear – not only of a clash between the regional powers, but a major blunder by Russia or the US – [is that this] could really escalate conflict to a different level,” says Mr. Gerges, author of “ISIS: A History.”

Rami Slush/AP
Israeli security officers at the wreckage of an F-16 that crashed in northern Israel on Feb. 10, 2018. As Syrian troops and their allies push toward final victory, clashes over new front lines and red lines threaten an even broader confrontation.

Flashpoints are obvious, as the evolving post-ISIS conflict brings foes Israel and Iran and Iran’s allies Hezbollah closer to each other along Syria’s southwest border.

Likewise, the US has indicated that it intends to keep a military presence in the broad swaths of northeastern territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it backs, despite the stated intention of Damascus – supported by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah – to reclaim every inch of Syrian territory.

The results of the recent violence nevertheless indicate that, despite the probing military actions and reactions, no side is yet eager for a full-blown war.

Swift de-escalation

Downing the Israeli F-16, for example, “appears to have been part of a pre-planned ‘bait and trap’ operation” by Mr. Assad and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, wrote Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis this week.

“The use of the comparatively disposable Iranian drone as bait to lure in an Israeli response was met with an unusually large wave of at least 24 surface-to-air missiles,” wrote Mr. Lister.

“The Iranians are raising the stakes of the bet,” Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, the former director of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, was quoted as saying in the Jerusalem Post.

“Since the Iranians were facing Israeli efforts to prevent them from having what they want, they are now trying to do things they haven’t before,” said Mr. Kuperwasser, also a former head of the army’s Intelligence, Research and Assessment division.

And yet, after the initial strikes, de-escalation efforts were swift: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone; and Iran denied it launched a drone at all, with one Tehran official saying the claims were “too ridiculous to be addressed.”

The Israeli military released cockpit footage of a batwing drone – similar to knock-offs of the American RQ-170 stealth drone that Iran captured in late 2011 and claims to have reverse-engineered – being tracked and then obliterated by a missile. It also released footage it claimed to be of the launch vehicle being destroyed inside Syria, and photographs of the burnt wreckage of the drone on Israeli soil.

Russia’s and Iran’s interests both converge and diverge in Syria, says Gerges. Iran’s presence has been key to Russia’s success, but Russia has a different agenda. “Russia does not really want Iran to have a dominant position,” he says. “Russia suspects that Iran wants to basically divert the crisis into a greater crisis, not only with Israel but with the Gulf countries.”

Russia as mediator

Absent an effective diplomatic process to mediate and enforce mutually agreed parameters of peace, the new back-and-forth on the Iran-Israel front in Syria is defining a de facto level of mutual deterrence, like the one that came to be between Hezbollah and Israel after their devastating 33-day war in 2006.

“To the extent it is Iran and Israel doing this, that is probing, yes. But it’s the only way to make the red lines clear, because that is what happened after 2006, too. There wasn’t any negotiation,” says Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Russia is in the best position to play mediator, because of its relatively good relations with all players – Assad’s allies, as well as Israel – and its military presence since 2015 that proved decisive for pro-regime forces, says Mr. Hiltermann. It also likely wants a relatively stable Syria, so it can reduce its military footprint.

“If that’s what [Russia] wants, then it can’t allow a war to be ignited over the southern border, because that would lay Syria to waste, if not a large area of the Middle East,” says Hiltermann. “The will [to mediate] might be there … but I’m not sure they have the capacity – they just haven’t actually played that role.”

Russian attempts to bring even Syria’s domestic players together for a peace conference in Sochi failed at the end of January, when, despite strong cajoling from Moscow, the most important Syrian opposition grouping and Kurdish groups boycotted the event.

Nataliya Vasilyeva/AP
Farkhanur Gavrilova, mother of Ruslan Gavrilov, who is reported to have been killed in Syria, speaking to the Associated Press in the village of Kedrovoye, Russia, Feb. 15, 2018. Gavrilova’s son was one of seven men in this village of 2,300 who are believed to have joined a private military company called Wagner. The company reportedly was involved in an attack on US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria on Feb. 7 and suffered devastating losses in a US counterstrike.

And Russia has other problems in Syria, where its nationals were reportedly embroiled in fighting last week. Several hundred pro-regime fighters – many reportedly Russians or nationals of former Soviet Republics like Ukraine – were targeted by a host of US aircraft as they tried to overrun a base near Al Tabiyeh, east of Deir Ezzor.

US military officials said they communicated with Russia “before, during and after” the strikes. A Kremlin spokesman distanced Russia from the battle, saying it only deals with servicemen, and adding: “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.”

US not leaving yet

Still, Bloomberg reported that “scores of Russian mercenaries” linked to a private Russian military contractor, Wagner, were being treated this week in Defense Ministry hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg, citing two people in contact with them. Russian media reports suggest that “Assad may have hired Wagner to recapture and guard Syrian energy assets in return for lucrative oil concessions,” Bloomberg reported.

“Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps” in backing the SDF, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week, without directly mentioning the episode. “Those steps look increasingly as part of efforts to create a quasi-state on a large part of Syrian territory from the eastern bank of the Euphrates [River] all the way to the border with Iraq.”

That Russian reaction coincides with clear signals from Washington in recent months that US advisers don’t plan to leave Syria, despite the winding down of anti-ISIS operations.

“The reason Russia is very angry is that Putin had thought he has most of the cards … that he could really translate his military dominance into political currency,” says Gerges of LSE. “The Sochi conference has shown very clearly that Russia could not deliver.”

But if Russia could this week at least help manage de-escalation between Israel and Iran, “the Americans were nowhere to be seen,” notes Gerges.

“It tells you a great deal about the weak hand the US has,” he adds. That’s why the US decided to stay in north and eastern Syria, “not because of resources, not because they love the Kurds, but because they are very concerned about not allowing Russia and Iran to have the ultimate say, in either the post-ISIS phase or the New Syria.”

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